Monthly Archives: June 2009

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The success of the  live screening of the National Theatre’s Phedre this week in 70 cinemas through NT  Live has sent up a flare signalling the future for theatre and how it can  become both exponentially more democratically accessible and available and also more economically viable.

That most esteemed of theatre critics, Michael Billington, was at the Chelsea Cinema for the premiere and his review in The Guardian surely will startle the doubters and traditionalists of the theatre world  who believe that being in the auditorium is the only place for the play.

He writes:

I came to a startling conclusion: the production worked even better in the cinema than it did in the Lyttelton. And the implications of that are enormous.

Once the show started, I and the rest of the audience sat spellbound. For a start, Bob Crowley’s set, with its sweeping platform and vast open sky, looked beautiful: I could even see, as I couldn’t in the theatre, how the palace walls were pocked and weathered by time. Robin Lough, using five multi-video cameras, also directed Hytner’s production impeccably for the screen: the cameras took us inside the action, allowed us to see faces in close-up and framed characters against the blue cyclorama, investing them with an epic quality.

So what does the success of this screen Phèdre tell us? Partly that a cinema audience can be as moved as people sitting in the theatre: everyone applauded loudly at the curtain call just as if they were in the Lyttelton. But the main lesson is that a theatre production can be made democratically available to a mass audience without any loss of quality: indeed because the camera can mix close-up and long shot and because we can all hear easily, the aesthetic impact may actually be enhanced. For generations we have been told that the theatre is elitist. Last night it was shown that a supposedly difficult classical tragedy can speak simultaneously to people across the globe. The National already has plans to broadcast three more plays over the next year. But my hunch is that this is only the beginning of a revolution in making theatre available in ways of which we had never dreamed.

With the advent of 3D screening, the potential for further extending the availability and intensity of the theatrical experience will be increased.  Live screening will revolutionise the business model for theatre and make it more economically viable for those theatre companies able to produce great work and then sell more tickets than available for the performance in the theatre.

The ramifications for our current theatre infrastructure could be profound.  If we can all have access to world class national and top flight theatre in our comfortable cinemas at low cost, will we be still be willing to take the risk attending our local theatres where not only will the offer be less reliable but we have to queue for the loos?

Will the public funders, confronted by the constraints of their less public sector resources over the next period, be willing to continue to subsidise some of the companies and venues which they have supported in more prosperous times?

We need to recognise the revolution in theatre making and embrace the potential to make great theatre available to all of us.  We need more local, collaborative and community theatre projects and we also need to provide venues which will house the live screenings of great theatre, now and in the 3D future.  This means that communities should have creative hubs, neutral centres for creative experiences including screenings, debates and discourse, performances and socialising, a 21st century refreshments of the civic theatre of the 20th century.


3d cine


We glimpsed a vision for the future of 21st century cultural venues today with 3D screening being the key. Lord Puttnam’s keynote speech at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this morning was inspirational on many fronts. He talked about the power of films to change the world, for film makers to show leadership in tackling issues from climate change to democracy, and about the essential role of educators in media literacy.  And described the action Singapore is taking as part of its competitive creative economy policy which is “20 times more ambitious” than the UK in broadband width and focussed competitive activity.

He also talked about the potential for cinemas in a Digital Britain where cinemas, or cultural venues including a cinema, could be showing the 2012 Olympic games, or live screenings of theatre.

This could the key to 21st century cultural planning or, as someone said in the audience today, “Is 3d cinema the new talkies?”.

We currently have a mess of a cultural infrastructure, particularly in the towns of the UK as opposed to the cities. We have multiplex cinemas, largely soul-less; we have town halls and civic theatres and the occasional arts centre. Anything that is designated a theatre is the subject of a note of conservation interest from the Theatres Trust.

Currently the block in our thinking about change is how we think about theatre.  Theatre is a an artistic event and communal experience which currently can only happen in a room, with actors enacting a drama in a room.  This is expensive and exclusive. 3d live screenings of theatrical events could fundamentally disrupt the business model.  The live performance could be enjoined by many through live 3D screenings.

What we need in towns are creative hubs. Neutral, enabling spaces where we can participate in excellent creative events and discourse.  Digital technology and 3 d cinema is the key to defining how these venues should work.  We need leadership in this creative and cultural planning. In Scotland, Creative Scotland, which will be the public body inheriting both arts and screen agencies as well as creative industries, is in a prime position to do this.


A step forward has been taken to embed a 360 ° system of support for Scotland’s creative industries with the publication of the report from the Creative Industries Partnership Group. The creative industries have an economic, social and cultural value for Scotland and so it makes sense that public agencies work together across the spectrum to provide specialist support across the whole of the creative industries.

The Creative Industries Framework Agreement Implementation Group (“CIFAIG”), jointly chaired by the Scottish Government and COSLA has put some further flesh on the bones of the February  Core Script outlining roles and responsibilities of the agencies which was agreed in February.

The recommendations of CIFAIG are based on the achievement of the following ambition: that Scotland becomes recognised as one of the world’s most creative nations – one that attracts, develops and retains talent, where the arts and the creative industries are supported and celebrated and their economic contribution fully captured.

CIFAIG recognised that to achieve the above ambition an innovative structure for supporting and developing the creative industries is required, led by the Scottish Government, with Creative Scotland the principal co-ordinator for action.  This structure has to be more than the introduction of a credible and properly empowered Creative Scotland. It must also involve the other parties to the Framework Agreement being prepared to adapt their existing processes and procedures to the achievement of the collective ambition. As importantly, it has to involve and engage practitioners in a manner and at a level that ensures that their contribution is both significant and effective.

The Agreement describes in some more detail how the specific agencies will work together and further articulates the role for Creative Scotland in leading the coordination of the Group and providing research and intelligence and being a broker, networker and champion.

The Framework Agreement is a step forward towards embedding a 360° system of support for Scotland’ s creative industries.  The creative industries have an economic, social and cultural value for Scotland and so it makes sense that public agencies work together across the spectrum to provide specialist support across the whole of the creative industries.  All teams need a leader and the Agreement sets out the priority roles for Creative Scotland in leading the coordination of activity through providing intelligence, gathered through research and through strong networking across the 13 sectors and relevant partners.

The devil is in the detail though and the Agreement does not provide the route map for creative entrepreneurs and enterprises recommended last year.  Creative Scotland will need “to provide intelligence and advice about the workings of the sector, including commercial opportunities, talent, market development, structural issues and dependencies” across the creative industries this year to facilitate this.

There is still a way to go but progress will best be made by actions and by actors.  Creative Scotland needs the leaders in place who can command authority and coordinate with credibility across the spectrum.  And Scottish Enterprise needs to signpost its commitments through its promise to have a clearly designated senior person for the creative industries.  And maybe its time to signpost ‘creative industries’ as a sector on the SE website instead of digital markets.

Although widely viewed as a damp squib, the Digital Britain report should be seen as enabling , with recommendations which will improve the digital infrastructure and enable greater digital access and success. But it won’t do it all, couldn’t and shouldn’t. And, at a time of accelerating change, the recommendations are not future proofed and there will need to be ongoing intervention by the state to support a digital Britain. But what about Scotland?

On the one hand the Digital Britain report did not support the recommendations of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission for a Scottish digital channel and Culture Minister Mike Russell MSP expressed disappointment.

On the other, the report announced the launch of three pilot schemes next year – one in the STV region, one in Wales and one in an English region – where consortia of media organisations will bid for licence-fee money to produce local ITV news. This represents the loosening of the BBC state monopoly and no one can predict where this will end. Things are moving.

This should also be seen in the light of the report of the  Calman Commission this week which recommends Scotland have more tax raising powers – albeit at the cost of losing its block grant.

So we are on a journey towards Scotland making key decisions with regard to the success of our creative industries in a digital world and backing them.

I have banged on  about the need to  support Scotland’s video games industry and the Digital Britain report alludes to cultural tax incentives to support the sector and we can hope that it actually happens. What will Scotland do for our team?


Reports from the Theatres Trust Annual conference focus on where our theatres let us down in their suitability for great dramatic experiences in the 21st century.  And for 21st century expectations of  collaboration and comfort.

The tirade against black box theatres led by Jason Barnes and echoed by leading theatre directors, designers and architects chimes with the current vogue for theatre taking place out of the box and out of the proscenium arch.  Theatre critics are keener and keener on the site specific and on the visual art/digital cross art form theatre that is a feature of the age of convergence. There is a general ennui around plays in the theatre, prosc arch or black box demonstrated by a lack of growth in audiences and a lack of enthusiasm from critics and the profession.  This is not surprising in the internet age, as we want to collaborate more and more and the proscenium arch is a symbol of them and us and to and from, not we and with.

Culture Minister Barbara Follett and Bonnie Greer complained about the anachronistic conditions in most of our theatres which still sees most of us cramped and queuing for the toilets.  To say nothing of the inflexibility of the performance times at 730 in the evenings.

We also have to face the unpalatable truths about theatre in the 21st century.  Increased public subsidy across the board has neither delivered increased or extended audiences, nor sustained quality across the board.  And we have a recession which means that our present arsenal of theatres is probably not sustainable.

We have to question then, why are we  so intent on preserving theatre buildings?

The Theatres Trust Act 1976 was an important parliamentary act to prevent the previously unstoppable tearing down of theatres in the 20th century to make way for shopping centres and ring roads.  Truthfully, we had too many theatres 30 years ago as a legacy of the days before cinema and television, where theatres were the only real place for public entertainment.    There was not a commercial business model and neither sufficient audience demand nor sufficient supply of public money to prop up theatres which were surplus to requirement.  But we needed the Act and the Trust set up as a result to stop us  losing important national treasures represented by some of our fabulous theatre buildings.

The objects of the Trust are to promote the better protection of theatres for the benefit of the nation

theatre means any building or part of a building constructed wholly or mainly for the public performance of plays;

But should ‘protection’ of theatres for plays be the priority now?  We need great theatre and we need creative hubs throughout the land to provide a home for theatrical experiences.  We need all our creative and arts venues, and theatres, to provide contemporary conditions for the creative experience and audience comfort.  But the focus on preservation of theatres needs to be in the context of what we need our 21st century cultural infrastructure to be and not the other way round.


Parma Farnesiano

The time has come to dismantle some of the machinery we have created in the UK and in Ireland to support our arts infrastructure. We need to face some unpalatable truths about  the impact of the way that the arts and cultural venues have been subsidised over the last period. Change is demanded by our current economic situation as well as exponential changes in the way we can collaborate and communicate through the internet.  The subsidised arts world is amongst the most resistant to change.  We have created a proliferation of machinery which is convoluted and which is preventing the flow of creative experiences in some areas, with money tied up in buildings and overheads and energy tied up in administrative processes.

In Ireland now artists are debating this challenge. In  an article in the Irish Times today , Sean Love asks artists for their insights on how to lead Ireland ‘out of the abyss’ taking as a starting point Seamus Heaney: “We are disposed to believe that the work of artists helps to create our future . . . that the effort of creative individuals can promote a new order of understanding in the common mind.”

The filmmaker Alan Gilsenan highlights the importance of art and artists in social, political and idealogical change.

“I think we imagine our world out of our past, our hopes, our dreams, out of our mythologies. When we look back to the origins of the state, to the 1916 Proclamation, that rebellion was a work of art. As a military rebellion it was a disaster, but they were primarily artists making statements. They knew the value of symbols. What seemed to happen was that people like Pearse, McDonagh (minor writers with a revolutionary aspiration) and people like Yeats (major artists with a minor interest in politics) looked at our past and our cultural inheritance, and they invented this idea. The Ireland that we live in was imagined by our artists, and those artists included the signatories of the Proclamation.

To a large degree, we achieved that future, at least in practical terms. If you think of what people in the early 20th century were hoping for, a lot of that came true – confidence (veering into over-confidence, but that’s another story), prosperity, autonomy, a sense of ourselves in the world, a sense that we are the equal of any nation.

Unfortunately, for all the progress we made, a lot of that progress was one dimensional.

Meanwhile, at the Abbey Theatre, Tom Murphy’s brilliant play, the Last Days of  Reluctant Tryant powerfully and dramatically tells the story of that single pursuit of prosperity and its devastating effects. This is great art with a great playwright writing the story before we knew it was a story, in the way that great playwrights do.

But how many people will see this play?  Not enough. Its a big show and is currently planned to play only in Dublin.  It should be playing throughout Ireland, with debate around it. But in recent years the  Abbey has tended to stay in Dublin and not to tour and theatre provision in Ireland has been more diverse, with the Arts Council funding a rich mix of companies, big and small.

This week the Arts Council published its discussion document Examining new ways to fund the production and presentation of theatre in which it fundamentally challenges the impact of its own increased investment in theatre over the last 4 years – in the context of the major cuts to its grant in the current recession.

The available resources are neither sufficient to meet adequately the requirements of those in receipt of funding nor to provide for potential new artists and practitioners.

The increased investment in theatre production and for the programming of local venues has not translated into a corresponding increase in the availability of professional theatre for regional venues. This fundamental disconnection must be addressed, and maybe a redistribution of how resources are provided for the production and presentation of theatre is required

It points out that unpalatable truth which many of us resist because it threatens our jobs and our ability to make the work we want to, paid for by the state.  Years of increased investment in the arts haven’t necessarily created better work for more audiences.  We can also add this: All the years of investment in audience development, marketing professionals and agencies, in the UK more than in Ireland,  have neither expanded the market for theatre nor diversified the audience.

The vast majority of English adults have no encounters with theatre, street arts or circus; and those who do attend tend to do so relatively infrequently. Also those taking part in amateur theatre represent a very small minority .. there are many persisting socio-demographic inequalities in the levels of engagement.

Arts Council of England Taking Part Survey findings

So its time to challenge what, how much and how theatre is subsidised.    Increasing supply does not increase demand. Increased investment has not increased audiences. Increased investment has increased the quality of theatre in pockets – the National Theatre of Scotland being a shining example – but it has not delivered a sustained improvement across the board.

We need our theatre to be stimulating and engaging, loved and attended!  And that may mean LESS and not more.  This means challenging historical patterns of subsidy.  In the UK, much of this is driven by theatre buildings, built in the 20th and 19th centuries and preserved by the state.  In Ireland, the history is different and the investment over the last four years in production companies is what is being challenged.

We need to support our theatre artists to create great work which contributes to the national conversation and stimulates ideas and debate. That great work should be available across the nation.

And here is another unpalatable truth. For most audiences, brand and reputation are important and in small nations, the national theatre brand is particularly important.  The challenge we have is how to invest the state’s resources for maximum benefit. The Arts Council in Ireland offers some suggestions and there will be more around dismantling the theatre machinery and facing the unpalatable truths about how we have invested over the next months.

Colleges may be thought to be more conservative institutions than arts organisations, but this week’s report that three Edinburgh further education colleges are moving along a path towards merger has turned the tables.

It is shocking but not surprising that subsidised arts organisations have not taken the initiative to remodel and regroup through mergers to become fitter through the recession.   Subsidised arts organisations tend to batten down the hatches and use all endeavours to preserve their existing activity and business model in times of economic or other change.   They then look to the public funders to tell them to change, reward their change, or financially support any consideration and design of change.  And they don’t tend to take the initiative to change or remodel, relinquishing that responsibility to the public funders. 

This is a pity, because there are some great creative and managerial skills in arts organisations which could be applied to regrouping and merging to create 21st century creative enterprises.  These enterprises should have a strong core with a flexible body able to contract and expand according to need and priorities. 

Arts organisations should be looking ahead instead of burying their heads in the sand.  There will be less public subsidy around over the next few years.  It’s not just about this year’s largely static settlements from arts councils and local authorities.  During the next few years not only will the central funding be further reduced but it will bite harder.  Taken together with the reduction in private investment and the reduced spending power of audiences, this is a serious situation which should not be ignored.  Arts organisations should innovate.

Currently, most arts organisations are trying to sit out the recession by spending less and less on the programme in order to pay the staff and the electricity bills.  

Those of us not protected by subsidy – creative and other businesses – have to change in the process of  evolution.  The independent television sector is in a continuous process of consolidation – as our arts organisations should.   Businesses and business models are being deconstructed and reformed at an accelerating rate responding not only to the economic crisis but to the impact of the internet in the ways that we communicate, create and trade. The public sector itself is being ‘simplified’ by governments. But subsidised arts organisations are last in line.

I have been involved in several investigations of mergers with arts organisations – always at the behest of the funders.  In most cases, the arts companies were so resistant that the business case could not stack up.  The core argument against mergers was always around artistic integrity, uniqueness or, to put in another way, about ego.  Artistic Directors would take up adversarial positions and this would drive the arguments.  The Boards would support the Artistic Directors rather than talk, board to board, about what would be best for the community, efficiency etc.  And would always see themselves as having to defend their position against the funders.

There could be another round of this coming up as intermediary cultural agencies are faced with declining resources.

Those of us with knowledge and not fixed to a single organisation or ego can challenge arts organisations who are in similar businesses, providing similar services with shared audiences in a defined community, for example:

  • How can you each justify a single box office and marketing operation?
  • How can you justify the cost of the time it takes to coordinate with the other publicly funded  arts organisations, forums, agencies and other itermediaries when those resources could be used to create more art for more people if you were to consolidate?

While arts organisations are generally resistant to change they show great ability to remodel when the chips are down.  The chips are coming down fast chaps. Talk to your colleagues.  Think the unthinkable. Deconstruct. Regroup. Maybe Merge.  Take the initiative – don’t wait for the public agencies to do it for you.